Dark Room

The Colorado Photographic Arts Center recently made the surprise announcement that it is closing when the current show, Layers: Contemporary Russian Photography, comes down next week. Ironically, the show had been billed as the center's grand reopening.

Before I get into CPAC's future, I'd like to talk about Layers, a memorable show that is indicative of the kind of thing that has been the regular fare at the gallery. Despite the subtitle, the exhibit is actually a solo dedicated to Nikolai Kulebiaken, who is considered to be a contemporary master of Russian photography and whose work is widely exhibited throughout Europe and the United States. The gorgeous pieces on display were loaned to CPAC by Teresa and Paul Harbaugh, local collectors and dealers with a special interest in Eastern European photography.

Born in 1959, Kulebiaken began taking photos as a child and had his first exhibit in 1979, even before his graduation from the Mossoviet Polytechnical Institute in 1981. By 1988 his work had become known in international photo circles.

It's important to remember that in those days, Russia was part of the Soviet Union, a place where every aspect of life -- including the arts -- was strictly controlled. This meant that Kulebiaken knew little of what was happening in photography outside of the Soviet Union and was exposed only to officially sanctioned photographs. Though the Soviets initially encouraged the pursuit of vanguard art, when Stalin took over as premier in the 1920s, conservative and backward-looking styles became favored. These attitudes were still prevalent in the 1980s. For whatever reason, the Soviets allowed more freedom of expression in the field of the still life, which is what encouraged Kulebiaken, and others of his and previous generations, to do so many of them.

Kulebiaken crams a lot of visual information into his pictures. The scenes are staged, but the resulting pieces still come off as abstracts because of the way he arranges the objects. He is especially interested in the effects of light as it goes through glass and prisms, as it hits mirrors and as it changes in cast shadows. In most of the photos, images have been projected onto the objects and people, giving the scenes a fantastic and unreal quality.

Aside from the three-color Chromogenic prints, everything has been done in black-and-white silver-gelatin prints. In addition, all of the pieces are untitled, making it difficult to discuss any particular one. The oldest are from the late '80s, with most of the show dating to the 1990s.

Layers has a week and a half left in its run. Don't miss this elegant show, a worthy last act for CPAC's well-regarded gallery.

The decision by the Colorado Photographic Arts Center's board of directors to cease its regular schedule of exhibits appears to have come out of left field. As some will recall, CPAC was closed all summer to allow for a remodeling that was undertaken by landlord Carol Keller. So it's strange that CPAC didn't simply shut down at that time instead of gearing up again by unveiling the Layers exhibit, only to put on the brakes almost immediately.

"I thought that a couple of months off would energize everybody, but it didn't," says CPAC president Skip Kohloff.

Kohloff and his wife, Lisbeth Neergaard Kohloff, CPAC's gallery coordinator, have essentially run the group themselves over the past couple of decades. But both are getting on in years, and they decided to call it quits. After all, the CPAC gigs they held were unpaid volunteer positions -- which is hard to believe, considering all the work they've done.

This is not the first time that CPAC has been forced to retreat. The last time was back in the 1980s. At that time, there was $200 in the group's treasury, which was very little money even then. Since that time, the Kohloffs and others have built up the account to some $10,000.

CPAC traces its origins to a group of meetings in the spring of 1963 that were sparked by the Denver Art Museum's total rejection of photography as an art form. Because then-museum director Otto Bach had not mounted a photo show in his thirty-year-plus career at the DAM, many argued that Bach simply did not believe that photography was art.

In late 1963, founders Eugene Lang, Jim Milmoe and Glen Thursh and almost a dozen other local photographers and photo enthusiasts held CPAC's inaugural dinner at the Brown Palace. At that time, the group's permanent collection was also established, with gifts from a who's who of famous photographers including Yousuf Karsh, Phillippe Halsman, Ansel Adams and many others. This collection, now numbering more than 600 photos, is presently in archival storage and is surely CPAC's greatest financial asset.

In early 1965, CPAC opened its first gallery, on East Colfax Avenue. It lost its lease in 1967 and for the next few years operated as a center without walls, something that would happen again and again. In 1972, the center reopened an exhibition space on Bannock Street, just west of the DAM.

It was also in the 1970s that the Kohloffs first became involved with CPAC. They had moved here from New York so that Skip could take a job teaching photography at Cherry Creek High School in Aurora. (The couple met at the New York World's Fair. Skip, a Bronx native, had scored a job as a groundskeeper, while Lisbeth, who was from Copenhagen, was one of seven young Danish women who served as hostesses at the Danish Pavilion.)

Before coming to Denver, the Kohloffs seriously pursued their joint love of photography. Skip got his bachelor's degree in fine art at York College and then earned an MFA in photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Lisbeth also studied at RIT, but transferred to the University of Rochester after getting hooked up with the prestigious Eastman House, which had a relationship with the school. At Eastman House she was exposed to the masters of photography, even cataloguing the museum's Lewis Hine collection. She earned a BA in art history with an emphasis on photography, and after moving to Colorado, she completed the MFA that she had begun in Rochester. She chose to study at the University of Denver because it was the only institution in the state that would allow her to specialize in the history of photography. She then taught the subject at DU and at the University of Colorado at Denver. Like her husband, she retired from teaching a few years ago.

Both Kohloffs had high-powered photo credentials, making it predictable that they would become involved with CPAC and almost immediately rise to leadership positions. In 1981, Skip was elected to the board; the next year, so was Lisbeth. This was a troubled time for the group, being essentially broke and having little prospect of changing the situation. So in 1982, the Bannock Street location was closed; in 1986, Skip became CPAC's president.

Despite not having a permanent venue, the organization sponsored important shows during the rest of the '80s and for most of the '90s. A number of these were presented at the Shwayder Gallery (now known as the Victoria Myhren Gallery), which reflected Lisbeth's association with DU. But other places were also tapped, including the Art Institute of Colorado, the Colorado History Museum and the Emmanuel Gallery.

The exhibits from this period often featured important photographers from around the country, such as Patrick Nagatani, Jerry Uelsmann and Richard Misrach. "With CPAC, we met a lot of great artists, and we would never have met these kind of people if we hadn't been involved. We've made so many friends," Lisbeth says wistfully.

In 1998, CPAC was offered gallery space at 1513 Boulder Street by Carol Keller. Since then, there have been four to six exhibits a year showcasing not only national art stars, but local luminaries, too. For the group's fortieth anniversary, in 2003, CPAC mounted a huge solo devoted to the work of New Mexico's Betty Hahn. Interestingly enough, Hahn was one of Skip's mentors back in his student days at RIT.

A new CPAC board is now being created. Some members, such as David Sharpe, will stay on, while others, including the Kohloffs, will withdraw after a transitional period. Other new boardmembers include Lincoln Phillips, John Davenport and Gifford Ewing. The new board hopes to get back out in the art world as early as February, and several places have offered them space, notably the Camera Obscura Gallery.

The new board really has its work cut out for it because -- and I say this with deadly earnestness -- Skip and Lisbeth Kohloff are absolutely irreplaceable. On the other hand, the Kohloffs have earned a rest, and I won't criticize them for their decision.

"I'm really going to miss it," says Skip, "but it's time." Adds Lisbeth, "We're not being selfish, we're just being realistic. I just don't want to be eighty and still doing this. The negative was that we'd find ourselves working 24 hours a day -- and we were only volunteers!"

I've been writing about art in Denver for a long time, and one of the many things I've learned is how one person -- or two people, in the case of the Kohloffs -- can make an enormous impact on the cultural life of our city and state. Yes, CPAC and the rest of us will somehow get along without them (well, maybe not CPAC), but it's too bad we've found ourselves in a position where we'll need to.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia